I find this disturbing, especially at a time when the teaching of communication skills is so central to the curriculum. We have to remember that medical communication isn't just between doctor and patient, but between doctor and doctor: the research paper, the article, the referral letter and the subsequent response from the consultant unit are all vital to good medical practice.
Nor do erudition and communication skills necessarily go hand in hand.
Sir Alexander Fleming's momentous paper on the discovery of penicillin was delivered in such a dull manner that as a result it almost failed to convey its subject matter. The most unreadable textbook I ever came across (Hamilton, Boyd and Mossman on embryology) was similarly sleep-inducing - a model of knowledge and scholarship that never used a simple word where three long and complicated ones could be substituted. I never did get to the end of it, but the pictures were good.
Sadly, the teaching of written communication is almost completely neglected in medical schools.
Certainly, students are taught which facts to include in referral letters, but not how to write succinctly and unambiguously. Yet uncomplicated language and clear sentence structure are key factors in communicating information securely from the printed page into the reader's brain.
And if you don't believe me, consider this: if GPs rank medical journals and papers in order of importance, then the BMJ and Lancet come top, with the free medical papers at the bottom. Now, ask the same people which journals they actually read, and the list gets turned upside down, with GP among the most popular. Why? Because the high quality of writing and level of communication in the free newspapers is relevant and well-crafted.
Communication skills don't begin and end with the consultation. For doctors they extend to the whole of our professional lives. In the world of medical tuition, the lack of teaching on written communication skills is a sad omission.
- Dr Lancelot is a GP from Lancashire. Email him at GPcolumnists@haynet.com.